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Fellow suffragists protest Alice Paul’s incarceration.  (Photo: via Harvard Magazine / Courtesy of the Historic National Woman’s Party, Sewall-Belmont House and Museum, Washington, D.C.)

For Anti-Trump Protesters: Lessons From the First White House Protests—For Women’s Suffrage—100 Years Ago

Peter Dreier

Many Americans will be traveling to Washington, D.C. next week to protesting against Donald Trump on his inauguration day. Many will continue to demonstrate outside the White House after he takes office.

Today’s activists can learn valuable lessons from the first protest outside the White House that took place 100 years ago – on January 10, 1917. The activists were part of the National Woman’s Party (NWP), a group that was fighting for women’s suffrage. It took three more years before women won the right to vote, but the ongoing protests at the White House played a crucial role in that victory.

The NWP suffragists, who came to Washington from all over the country, called their protest “silent sentinels.” Woodrow Wilson, who had won his second term as president in November 1916, was not an advocate of women’s suffrage. The NWP activists carried purple, white, and gold banners with the words, “Mr. President what will you do for woman suffrage?” and “Mr. President how long must women wait for liberty?” When Wilson traveled to other cities, he was often greeted by NWP members carrying banners with the same message.

The NWP was persistent. Its members protested at the White House six days a week, every week, until June 4, 1919 when Congress finally passed the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote. During this two-and-a-half year long campaign, many of the activists were harassed and arrested, and mistreated while in prison. But their persistence and civil disobedience paid off.

Alice Paul was the leader of the NWP and the silent sentinels. After graduating from Swarthmore, Paul earned a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1907 she moved to England to practice social work among the poor at a Quaker-run settlement house in Birmingham. One day she heard a speech by Christabel Pankhurst, the daughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the radical wing of England’s feminist movement. Paul was intrigued by the Pankhursts’ motto, “Deeds not words,” which they translated into direct action, including heckling, rock throwing, and window smashing, to draw attention to the cause of women’s rights. Not surprisingly, the women often got arrested for such protests, which led to newspaper photos of activists being carried away in handcuffs by the police.

Hesitant at first to join their militant crusade, Paul eventually overcame her fears and was arrested and jailed several times. In prison, she and other suffragettes protested their confinement with hunger strikes. Their jailers force-fed them. Paul took solace in a motto that one of her fellow activists carved into the prison wall: “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.”

When Paul returned to the United States in 1910, she was determined to inject the radical ideas she had learned in England into the women’s rights movement. While earning her Ph.D. in economics at the University of Pennsylvania (her dissertation examined women’s legal status), she joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). At the suggestion of reformer Jane Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House and the settlement house movement, Paul was soon appointed head of the committee responsible for working for a federal women’s suffrage amendment.

In 1912 she moved to Washington, DC, and joined forces with Lucy Burns, another American, whom she had met when they were both arrested in a London suffrage protest. The duo began planning an elaborate parade on the eve of Woodrow Wilson’s presidential inauguration, scheduled for March 4, 1913. About 8,000 college, professional, middle- and working-class women marched with banners and floats down Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House. The crowd watching the march was estimated at half a million people; many harassed the marchers while the police stood by. Troops were called to restore order and to help the suffragists get to their destination—six hours after the parade started. The melee generated headlines, making the issue of women’s suffrage a topic of conversation around the country.

Although Wilson showed some interest in the women’s cause, he said the time was not yet right. Paul never believed that Wilson was the least bit sympathetic to women’s suffrage. He would only support them, she thought, if public opinion compelled him to.

In this and other respects, Paul disagreed with NAWSA leaders. They endorsed Wilson, despite his opposition to women’s suffrage, hoping they could eventually convince him. They worried that Paul’s tactics could trigger a backlash. They also disagreed with Paul’s emphasis on winning a federal amendment. The NAWSA’s main focus was on winning women the vote one state at a time, hoping to build momentum that could later lead to a federal constitutional change. By 1912, however, only nine states had granted women the vote.

In reality, the two strategies complemented each other: even if the amendment was passed by Congress, it would have to be ratified in the states, where NAWSA was building its base.

But the broader disagreements led to a split. Paul and her followers first formed the Congressional Union in 1914, which became the NWP, which recruited women prepared to engage in direct action. The NWP published a weekly paper and staged demonstrations, parades, mass meetings, picketing, hunger strikes, and lobbying vigils. Suffragists released from prison, wearing prison uniforms, rode a “Prison Special” train, speaking throughout the country.

During the 29 months of the “silent sentinels” outside the White House, more than 1,000 women picketed, including Alice Paul, every day except Sunday.

President Wilson initially patronized the protesters, tipping his hat to them when he passed by. But when the United States entered World War I, the president and others became irate over the idea of women picketing outside the White House while the nation was at war.

Between June and November 1917, police arrested 218 protesters on the trumped up charge of “obstructing traffic.” Most of these women were imprisoned in the Occoquan Workhouse in Virginia.

Usually, after three days in prison, the women were released. But they returned to the White House to continue picketing. The battle between the police and the protesters escalated. Inside the prison, the women faced harsh living conditions, rancid food, and the denial of medical care when they were ill. They were denied visitors.

Their jailers beat them and confined them to cold, unsanitary, rat-infested cells. Some were placed in solitary confinement and subjected to force-feeding.

On November 13, 1917, an angry crowd began attacking the White House picketers. Some stole and tore the women’s banners. Rather than restrain the hostile mob, the police instead arrested the peaceful protesters and sent them to jail in paddy wagons.

When they arrived at the prison, they met some of their NWP comrades who were already in jail. Alice Paul had been there since October 22nd, serving sentences totaling seven months. Paul and her colleagues adopted the tactics she had learned in England. They demanded to be treated as political prisoners. On November 5, she began a hunger strike. She was force-fed three times a day.

On the night of November 14, 33 NWP prisoners were brutally tortured and beaten by the workhouse guards and the superintendent, W.H. Whittaker. Whittaker ordered the nearly 40 guards to brutalize the suffragists. They beat Lucy Burns, chained her hands to the cell bars above her head, and left her there for the night. They threw Dora Lewis into a dark cell and smashed her head against an iron bed, which knocked her out. Her cellmate, Alice Cosu, who believed Lewis to be dead, suffered a heart attack. The guards grabbed, dragged, beat, choked, pinched, and kicked other women.

The press reported on the suffragists’ terrible experiences in prison, and politicians and activist groups demanded their release. On November 27 and 28, all the protesters were released. The following March, the Washington, D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals declared that 218 suffragists had had been illegally arrested, illegally convicted and illegally imprisoned. The women could have filed suits for damages, false arrest and imprisonment, but they chose not to do so.

The public outcry played a role in Wilson’s decision in 1917 to reverse his stance and announce his support for a suffrage amendment. He explained that it was a “war measure”—to stop the controversy over women’s rights from dividing the country during wartime.

But it was not until the war was over, in 1919, that both the House and the Senate passed the Nineteenth Amendment. Because the suffrage movement had invested heavily in state-level campaigns, its leaders were confident they could garner the three-fourths of the states needed to ratify the amendment.

By the summer of 1920, they needed just one more state to vote in favor; the Tennessee legislature met in August 1920 to vote on the issue. The deciding vote was cast by Harry Burn, at twenty-four the youngest member of the Tennessee assembly. He initially intended to vote “no” but changed his vote after receiving a telegram from his mother asking him to support women’s suffrage. Women had finally gained the right to vote – 72 years after the first women’s suffrage meeting took place in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The persistent and militant protests at the White House 100 years ago were a turning point in the struggle for women’s rights.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier

Peter Dreier is the E.P. Clapp distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. He is the author of  "The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame" (2012) and an editor (with Kate Aronoff and Michael Kazin) of "We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism, American Style" (2020). He is co-author of the forthcoming "Baseball Rebels: The Reformers and Radicals Who Shook Up the Game and Changed America" (2021).

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